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Tough But Glorious

Monday, September 20th, 2021: Hikes, Mogollon, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

I needed to get up early on Monday and do hard physical work, so I didn’t want Sunday’s hike to beat me up or involve hours of driving. I was running out of ideas until I noticed a trail on the Forest Service “cleared trails” map that I’d never tried before, because it didn’t seem to involve enough elevation gain.

Ironically, it was a trail I’d already approached several times from the north. The last time I did the “rolling plateau between two canyons” hike, I’d gotten a glimpse of the country traversed by this new trail. It was at the southwestern edge of the big wildfire we’d had back in June, and from the north, I’d seen how the dying fire had formed a mosaic of burned and unburned habitat over there. There was a rocky peak southeast of the trail that I’d begun dreaming about bushwhacking to – south of the new trail there was a long series of rocky peaks and ridges in the midst of a trail-less area spanning about 50 square miles, which in itself is extremely tempting.

To get to this trail, you take the long dirt road up onto the mesa, then turn onto a gravel ranch road that runs out to a spur of the mesa that overlooks the deep valley of the creek the trail is named after. The road plunges down the mesa side into the valley, and you drive past the ranch, across the creek, and up the valley toward a second ranch. Although as the crow flies it’s less than 40 miles from town, the complicated route and topography make it feel incredibly remote, and the hidden valley where the ranches lie is quite beautiful, especially now at the end of a wet monsoon.

Considering the remoteness, I was surprised to find a vehicle already parked at the trailhead. The trail sets out up a low basin that curves to the left between the mountain wall and an arm of the mesa. The basin is dissected by many gullies, and the trail winds up and down and around across this low broken land of mesquite and scrub oak for a mile or so until it begins to climb toward the mountains. The surface here is the dreaded “volcanic cobbles”, my least favorite hiking surface, but it was early and I had plenty of energy so I didn’t mind it yet.

The temperature was mild when I started out, but the sky was clear and it was forecast to reach the low 80s in town. However, town is almost a thousand feet higher than the valley I was climbing out of. I was sweating pretty bad before I even climbed out of the basin.

I flushed two dozen quail out of the mesquite – half went left, the other half went right.

Finally the trail took me up into a narrow hanging canyon below the westernmost peak, where switchbacks led to a high pass into the interior of the mountains. The footing was terrible, but I was committed and just had to deal with it. A redtail hawk soared above the head of the canyon, then plunged into the pinyon-juniper-oak forest.

Suddenly I crossed the divide between west and east and saw the peak I’d been dreaming of climbing, far to the east across an incredibly rugged landscape of white cliffs and hoodoos. It was sudden, dramatic – one of those “rim of the world” viewpoints – an exciting new world that in itself justified today’s hike. As I proceeded east, the trail traversed the long eastern slope of the peak behind me, progressively revealing more and more of the white-rock landscape to the east.

Studying topo maps at home, I’d already checked out a possible route to the rocky peak along an outlying ridge that intersected my trail, and as I hiked I kept my eye on that ridge. I didn’t really have much hope of reaching the peak today – it would probably be a 20 mile out and back hike with almost half of it routefinding and bushwhacking off trail – but if the routefinding and bushwhacking were too challenging, I could continue on this trail down to the creek for a reasonable 15 mile day hike. As I said, I didn’t want to beat myself up…

The traverse dipped in and out of deep ravines, and the farther I went, the better I could see how much farther I still had to go, just to get to the ridge that connects to the rocky peak. That ridge lies far above the big creek for which this trail is named – the creek I’d looked down into from the north on my last “rolling plateau” hike.

I’d lost count of all the side canyons I’d already crossed on this traverse when the trail began climbing a steep slope, and I suddenly emerged on a little forested plateau – the second dramatic ascent on this hike – a beautiful Ponderosa pine “park” that extended for hundreds of yards and was almost perfectly level. The occasional burned shrub and scatter of ashes at the base of the tall pines showed that a surface fire had been through here, only a few months ago, but the trees, having dropped their lower limbs long ago, had escaped it.

I’d had to put on my head net on the way up to the pass, but the flies in this pine park were the worst I’d ever found. They were so thick on the net over my face it was almost hard to see through them.

At the far end of the park, where the trail dropped steeply toward the ridge below, I saw that the fire had burned up the slope, killing the pines at the upper edge, without torching the canopy of the park itself. Amazing good fortune, and another lesson in wildfire ecology.

When I finally reached the ridge below, I got my first view north over the deep canyon of the big creek, to the terrain I’d hiked in the past. It was the second “rim of the world” viewpoint on this hike – not so sudden as the first, but dramatic nonetheless. And after another quarter mile or so climbing over bare white conglomerate and down through shady pine forest, I reached a junction where the trail I’d hiked from the north ended at the trail I was on today. The northern trail climbed steeply out of the deep canyon, and as I was photographing the trail sign, a backpacker suddenly stepped into my picture – the guy whose vehicle I’d seen at the trailhead.

He was about my age, and he’d been out alone for two nights, camping in the pine park the first night, and on the creek below last night.

I was now in the burn scar. The next section of trail wasn’t listed as recently cleared, so I didn’t know what to expect. It contined for the better part of a mile along the burned ridge, overgrown with wildflowers and with no recent tread – you had to be right on top of the old trail to see where the path was. But with all my experience it was only hard to follow in one or two places.

This area was like a vast, living textbook on how landforms, geology, and habitat shape wildfire – from the pine park where the trees’ growth habit protected them, to the broad slopes of solid rock which support only sparse fuels, to the cliffs, hoodoos, and boulder mazes which interrupt and redirect the fire’s growth.

Without forest cover, I could easily see where I’d have to leave the trail to climb toward the rocky peak. It turned out to be the place where the ridge trail began to descend into the canyon of the big creek. The slope I needed to bushwhack up looked doable – the white rock didn’t support continuous vegetation, although there were outcrops and rimrock I’d have to climb around.

As I started to traverse the first peak of this outlying ridge, I discovered it was best to just go straight up, because the scrub was sparser near the top. Up there, I found I could work my way southeastward along the ridge, where each little peak was slightly higher than the previous.

Although my focus was on the ridge I was following toward the distant peak, when I first crested that ridge it was yet another “rim of the world” experience. I now had a new view, a dozen or more miles back into the wilderness, of the upper canyon of the big creek, zigzagging back and forth to the far horizon, walled by low cliffs. A narrow strip of tall pines lined the bottom of the canyon, a thousand feet below me, where the trail I’d started on continued for dozens of miles and connected with many other trails, mostly abandoned after the 2012 wildfire, which could only be accessed on long backpacking trips.

Then I came to the base of a dramatic hill of solid white rock. I traversed steeply up its western slope on giant stone steps, and on the other side, found a maze of boulders that led down to the next little saddle at the base of the next little peak. Descending through that boulder field looked hard but was actually fun. It reminded me of the granitic landscapes in the Mojave, where you can jump from boulder to boulder.

I was starting to watch the time – I’d only had 45 minutes available when I’d left the trail. In the end, I was only able to climb two more of the little hills on the ridge leading to the big rocky peak. But it felt great to be exploring new terrain and doing it off-trail. For the first time in months, I wasn’t drenched, I wasn’t in pain, and I was actually having fun on a hike!

Wanting to get home before dark, I didn’t hang out up there. The views were spectacular, but there were cowpies under the junipers – not recent, but I’d seen sign of trespass cattle everywhere in this part of the wilderness. No doubt they were from one or both of the ranches in the valley of the big creek. The Forest Service estimates there are now between 200 and 300 trespass cattle in our local wilderness, and after a long, drawn out lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity, the feds have finally promised to do something about it – against fierce opposition by the cattle industry. I’m not holding my breath.

As usual, now that I knew my route, the return to the trail went smoother. Cumulus clouds had formed all across the region, and now, half the time I was in shade. I was looking forward to climbing to the pine park again, and hiking the traverse with the long view over the white rock interior. What a wonderful day!

My joy turned to aggravation when I crossed the east-west pass and began the final descent, on that terrible surface of loose, roughly foot-sized rocks that went on for miles. I suddenly realized something that had been only on the verge of consciousness during the past three years.

I used to believe our Mojave Desert mountains represent some of the ruggedest terrain on earth, and my new local trails in southwest New Mexico are tame in comparison. But actually, hiking in the desert, where there are no trails, turns out to be much easier than hiking the trails of the Gila Wilderness. The geology here, where all the rock is ancient volcanic ejecta or tuff-based volcanic congomerate, is just not conducive to trails. I’m convinced that the dangerous, unstable surface of most of our trails is a reason why they get so little traffic – ironically, the poor footing helps protect our wilderness, because you have to be really tough and determined to penetrate it.

It’s conceivable that I’ll eventually give up trying to hike these trails. It’s just too hard to avoid injury on all those loose rocks.

The last 2 or 3 miles of this hike are totally exposed, the earlier clouds had dispersed, and it felt like 90 degrees in late afternoon. I’d drunk all of the 4 liters of water I’d carried in my pack, and was getting dehydrated. Although I had a spare water bottle awaiting me in the vehicle, I hadn’t packed it in ice like I sometimes do, so it would be hot.

But I made it to the vehicle. 14 miles out and back, and the elevation gain had been over 3,000′, better than I’d expected. Despite the hot water bottle, the drive out, during the long sunset, was glorious. Although rain hadn’t been forecast, it was actually raining in town as I drove home, and had just ended when I arrived.

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Unstoppable Urge

Monday, December 13th, 2021: Hikes, Mogollon, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

Midway through the past week, I’d finally succumbed to another episode of severe back pain – a continuous level 7 on the pain scale – which was then added to the chronic foot inflammation and the burning sensation in my hip – which now seems to be connected to the back thing. I was virtually immobilized for a couple days due to a perfect storm of delays in the healthcare system, then spent another couple of days operating at half capacity on meds.

It takes a week or two for episodes like this to subside, so why would I even consider going for a hike only four days after onset?

Why does the Pope (blank) in the woods?

After all, walking is generally considered good for back pain, although not always in my experience.

Early Sunday morning, the edge-of-your-seat Formula 1 season ended with a bang, with two drivers equal on points, and the young challenger passing the much older 7-time world champion on the last lap, the young driver admitting he’d had a terrible leg cramp at the time. How could I wimp out of a hike when faced with an example like that?

The rational thing would’ve been to choose an easy hike close to home. But after four days of severe pain, I was hardly rational. Like a rampaging zombie, I followed a deep-seated urge to return to the area I’d been hiking for the past two weeks, and re-tackle the trail I’d previously sworn was too rocky and dangerous on my feet. But as usual, I did bring the meds, just in case.

After finally getting a little rain a couple days earlier, it was several degrees below freezing at home, under a crystal clear sky.

Remembering how upset I’d been about the terrible footing on this trail the first time I’d hiked it, I vowed to revisit it with a positive attitude and take the dreaded volcanic cobbles in stride, slowing my pace, increasing my concentration, and allowing extra time where needed.

But two miles in, after crossing the seemingly interminable rolling basin and starting up the rocky slope to the pass, I found something else to annoy me. At the trailhead, I’d read a recent log entry by the Back Country Horsemen, who proudly and excitedly proclaimed that they’d “cleared” about ten miles of trail. Of course, this trail had already been cleared recently by another volunteer group, and I’d found it in good shape in September. What I found was that the horsemen had unnecessarily mutilated beautiful and valuable wilderness habitat, cutting back or cutting down hundreds of trees and shrubs as far as 8′ off the trail, while ignoring thorny catclaw and locust seedlings that remained the only impediment to hikers.

On a day hike, this incredibly rocky trail is a lot of work for a small payoff. But the payoff still seems to be enough to keep drawing compulsive hikers like me – and of course the lazy back country horsemen, who let their pets do all the work.

Shortly after crossing over the pass into the backcountry, I came across the first pile of junk left by the horsemen – some kind of heavy, unidentifiable camping apparatus which had just been leaned against a tree beside the trail. I’ve been finding junk left in wilderness far too often lately, but this was so heavy I wasn’t excited about carrying it out. Why would they leave it in the first place?

With my determination to enjoy the hike, the segment to the high pine park seemed to go quicker than before. My back pain was there, but walking did seem to keep it manageable.

Unfortunately, while crossing the beautiful pine park I encountered the second pile of trash left by the horsemen – six 5-gallon collapsible plastic water carriers, all punctured in various ways, probably by a bear. Had they stupidly left them there full of water, thinking to make them available for future visitors? Several times on popular trails I’ve come across water bottles left for hikers, and it always seems like a well-intentioned but naive idea – leaving plastic waste that’s sure to attract wildlife. This was the worst example I’d ever seen.

From the pine park I dropped a few hundred feet to the junction where the horsemen had descended into and crossed the big canyon northwards toward the West Fork. As before, I passed the junction, continuing straight up the ridge above the canyon, through the burn scar of last summer’s fire, to the saddle where the trail begins descending into the heart of the big canyon, deep in the wilderness.

Following my unstoppable urge, I’d decided to try reaching the creek crossing down there – a fifteen-mile round trip with 3,500′ of accumulated elevation gain. Would my wrecked body endure it?

Starting down the trail into the canyon, I entered another world. The tread was narrow and very steep in sections, but I had long, dark volcanic cliffs to admire on the opposite side. The trail passed in and out of forest, scrub, and oak thickets, veering back into deep side canyons where recent post-fire erosion had created logjams and rock berms. It traversed the slope eastward for the better part of a mile, then began dropping hundreds of feet down into the canyon on long switchbacks. This was a north slope so it was holding a lot of moisture, and not just from last week’s rain. I had my sweater back on descending this shady slope, and the moist ground was frozen solid and covered with frost.

I reached the creek sooner than I expected, in a lush, damp, chilly green swale. The canyon was narrow here but I could see the trail continuing east onto a broad flood plain forested with ponderosa up to a hundred feet tall.

After last summer’s fire, the canyon bottom was a strange place. Lush with grass but lined with ashes and char, the floodplain, which was probably a great camping area before, was uneven from post-fire erosion and deposition, and the tall pines had been charred for dozens of feet up their trunks, some of them killed, others with surviving crowns. I was excited about reaching this place, but as usual, I’d pushed my available time and needed to rush back in order not to get lost in the dark.

Although in the past 3 months I’ve had to cut way back on my hiking, I seem to have somehow retained my conditioning, because the 800′ climb out of that canyon back to the ridge felt really easy. I’d put a fresh metatarsal pad on the orthotic for my sensitive foot, so it seemed to be doing better – you really need to keep up maintenance for a condition like this.

With little more than a week ’til the winter solstice, the sun was dropping rapidly, shadows were deepening, and I treasured what little light I could get going back along that exposed ridgeline toward the pine park.

I hadn’t planned on trying to pack those big water carriers out, but when I reached them I just couldn’t stand leaving them without a try. I had a plastic bag that, with a lot of forceful crushing, accommodated three of them and barely fit inside my pack. I crushed the other three and used my nylon strap to secure them on the outside of the pack. They hardly weighed anything.

After another mile and a half traversing toward the pass, I reached the weird heavy camping item. Yep, it was heavy – 12 to 15 pounds. But it had a handle, and I remembered the young Formula 1 driver who won the race with a leg cramp. So I began carrying it out.

The next three miles were just an ordeal, but I stuck to my determination to keep a positive attitude. There were places where stumbling or twisting on the incredibly rocky trail triggered my back and hip pain, and I ended up taking a pill, and then another an hour later, realizing it was ridiculous to suffer when I had the means to relieve it.

As on the previous Sunday’s hike, it was almost completely dark when I reached the trailhead, but my eyes had adjusted well and I only used my headlamp to unload and rearrange stuff in the vehicle. I left the weird rolled-up camping device at the trailhead – it seemed to have some sort of faded, vaguely official printing on it.

And since this trailhead is really remote, on roads I’m still unfamiliar with, it was a long slow drive home, but I was feeling pretty good about what I’d accomplished.

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Long Walk For a Shallow Dip

Monday, August 1st, 2022: Hikes, Mogollon, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

We’d been getting regular cloud cover and occasional rain in town, so I expected fairly good summer hiking weather. Like last weekend, I hoped I might even get some cooling rain in the mountains.

On the drive north, the sky was clear to the west, but there were broad, high clouds over the mountains on my right. And I was excited to get a little rain on the windshield as I headed toward them, but it didn’t last.

I knew just what hike I wanted to do, but I was a little worried when I crossed the river on the highway – it was in flood, 4 times its normal flow. To get to the trailhead, I had to drive across one of its perennial tributaries. Would that be in flood too?

But when I got there, emerging from a shady sycamore grove, the creek’s flow was normal.

This is one of the only two major perennial streams in our mountains that isn’t called a river. The trail begins near the creek downstream, and climbs over several ridges to meet the creek again deep in the wilderness. I’d only been there once before, briefly. It was a hike of over 15 miles round trip, the most I’d done since my illness. If I could make it all the way, I would deserve a dip in the creek!

On the long approach up a rolling basin, I was distracted again and again by wildflowers. The morning temperature was in the 60s, but the humidity is so high now, I was soon drenched with sweat again.

Finally I reached the steep climb to the pass, and now I was really sweating! On past visits I’d found these seemingly endless, exposed switchbacks the most daunting part of the hike, but now I didn’t mind them so much. At least I was getting an occasional breeze.

Beyond the pass you enter the backcountry, a land of deep canyons, burn scars, multicolored layers of rock and dramatic formations, with the crest of the range on your horizon. I’d always thought of this next section of trail as a seemingly endless traverse without much elevation gain, but this time I experienced it completely differently – as an endless series of steep erosional gullies lined with loose rocks. Just goes to show how much our experiences depend on psychology.

The reward at the end is the ponderosa pine “park” – a small, shady, grassy plateau before the trail becomes a ridge hike. But today, I’d been plagued by flies all along that traverse, and as expected the flies were even worse in the park. So I just rushed through it to the descent to the ridge.

On the ridge you are high above the canyon of the creek, with spectacular views to left and right. In the first saddle below the park was my first decision point – the junction with a trail that could be my short cut to the creek. I stood there a while trying to make up my mind. Although the temperature was probably only in the 70s, I was dripping with sweat and really wanted that creek, but I also wanted this hike to be an improvement on last week, with more mileage and/or elevation, and if I took this shortcut it would end up almost identical to last week’s hike.

So ultimately I decided to keep going up the ridge to the next creek crossing.

About another mile along the ridge, the trail begins descending steeply into the canyon, through burn scar regrowth, across erosional gullies, over more fractured white rock, much of it exposed with spectacular views of high peaks and multicolored cliffs of volcanic rock on the opposite side. I kept pushing the head net up from my face, thinking the flies were gone, only to have them return in swarms, dive bombing my eyes and nose.

When I reached the creek, deep in the wilderness, it looked completely different – narrower, choked with vegetation, its bed rearranged by floods. And the flies were terrible. There was no swimming hole, only a shallow channel choked with rocks, but all I could think about was shedding my damp, stinky clothes and getting in, somehow.

I found a channel between rocks that was deep enough to lie back in, and rinsed out my shirt, hat, and head net. The water wasn’t actually cold, but it felt marvelous after that sweaty hike! And while I was wet from the creek water, the flies briefly left me alone.

It’d taken me a long time to reach that crossing – a walk of close to 8 miles – and I knew the hike back would seem truly endless. But first I had to climb out of the canyon, about 800 vertical feet, and I had to take it slow – my lungs were still struggling, and I wanted to preserve the memory of that dip in the water and not get overheated.

Clouds had been massing over the crest in the distance – it looked like there might even be a storm elsewhere in the range. But not here. I knew the temperature couldn’t be above the low 80s, but it felt like the high 90s with all that humidity.

Finally I left the ridge and climbed to the pine park, where the flies swarmed me with a vengeance. And from there forwards, the trail really felt unfamiliar. The “traverse” back to the pass and the open country beyond the mountains felt even more endless than usual, and the rock-lined erosional gullies were harder to descend than they’d been to ascend. With my compromised foot and hip, I had to take it slowly and carefully.

And despite the approach of evening, it didn’t get any cooler. Over the pass, down the endless switchbacks to the foot of the mountains, and then the two-mile slog out the rolling basin, the sun burning down on me all the way. Dark clouds were moving out from the crest of the range, but that dip in the creek was only a distant memory by now!

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